First time lapse video of pepper and tomato sprouts

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m working on a project with the Raspberry Pi 2 and one of the things I’m doing is playing around with the camera module.

This little camera is not bad (similar to a cell phone camera), but it definitely does best at a bit of a distance. Probably 6-10 feet at least. I need to be a bit closer to get enough detail and also due to the limited spacing between the grow lights and the seed trays. I ended up picking up one of those cheap little sets of lenses you can get for cell phones. It’s not going to win fine photography awards, but it’s just fine for my needs. The kit includes a fisheye, wide angle, macro and telephoto lens. Here’s a closeup of one of the lenses in place.

Lens closeup

My camera mount is a very primitive holder I threw together out of scrap wood, but it does the job.

Here is a wider shot of the seed starting area with the camera mount in place. I have it taking photos every 30 minutes of one of my pepper and tomato seed starting trays.

Here is an initial time lapse video showing some of the seeds sprouting and growing. This was taken over the course of 5 days, March 26-30. I do change the camera position and seed tray position slightly, so it’s a bit jerky in spots.

Initial thoughts on the Raspberry Pi 2

Note: This is more of a technical post that I am also posting to my work blog, but since I am a software developer as well as a homesteader this is an interesting cross-section of my two worlds. Most farmers I know are tinkerers, inventors, DIY-ers and improvisers, so this fits right into that line of thinking.

When the Raspberry Pi first came out a few years back, it seemed like a very interesting idea in theory. A tiny computer for $35, completely self-contained, with built-in Ethernet, HDMI and a couple of USB ports. It peaked my interest briefly, but I never got around to trying it out.

Fast forward to 2015 and there’s a new model with a quad-core processor and more memory, which translates into better/faster video options and a lot more power in general. There are plenty of articles discussing all the ins and outs of the new model, but a couple of things made me take a look this time.

One, Microsoft has promised a version of Windows 10 (out in preview right now) that will run on the unit. This opens up all kinds of possibilities for someone who is already intimately familiar with the Windows development eco-system. I do love working with Linux, but the first part of this sentence is a lie. Guess I just lost any geek cred I was building up. I’ve dabbled in Linux on and off over the years and I think the biggest issue is that I’ve never spent enough time in it to get comfortable. So everything I want to do involves a trip to Google.

Two, my company Clarity is sponsoring a concept called Ship Days this year where each employee is expected to “ship” some little side project during the year. It’s pretty wide open, but could be a mobile app, an Internet of Things project or something you might see at a MakerFaire event. Suffice it to say I won’t be the only one taking a fresh look at the Raspberry Pi platform.

I’ve had the Raspberry Pi 2 for a couple weeks now and here are some random thoughts and impressions.

  • Since conception the Raspberry Pi fairly quickly became a hacker/tinkerers dream platform. That means there are all kinds of add-ons available, the set up process has gotten drop-dead simple and there are tons of tutorials, blog posts and ideas out there to peruse.
  • The Raspberry Pi 2 model mostly changed in how much power is on the board, so pretty much anything that worked with previous models will work with this one. In some cases you might need an adapter cable to hook up the proto boards or shields, but most stuff is fine.
  • The “NOOBS” set up experience gives you lots of options, including ones geared to specific uses like as a media center PC. I was up and running in no time on the most common distro (Raspbian) which is a version of Debian Linux.
  • The unit doesn’t really like hot-swapping USB very much. I managed to corrupt my first install pretty easily and had to start again. If I understand correctly, part of this is due to using the SD card as your main boot disk, which is much more sensitive to I/O disruption than a traditional hard disk.
  • There are tools that make is easy to pop your SD card into your main computer and make a clone of it when everything is working the way you want, so that is certainly a good idea when working with this unit.
  • The networking stack seems a bit flaky with wireless. I got the highly recommended Edimax nano usb adapter, but I’m still having trouble with getting the unit to respond consistently to SSH or RDP requests. I put in a job to restart networking every hour or so and that seems to have helped.
  • I got the Raspberry Pi camera module and it is extremely easy to work with. Right now I have it taking time-lapse photos of one of my seed starting trays. This tutorial worked great and it’s really simple to get working. More details on this in later posts.

All in all it’s an impressive little piece of engineering, particularly for $35. There are lots of possibilities for automation and monitoring that might be interesting to try on my little hobby farm. Many folks are already using a Pi or Arduino along with sensors to automate plant watering for instance. I bought a couple of moisture sensors that I’m hoping to get hooked up eventually, but as that requires some soldering it involves a bit more time to get up and running. I’m hoping to tackle that next.

the farm equipment conundrum

So now that we have our land and are starting to plan for our first growing season, I’ve been thinking about equipment.  I’ve actually been thinking about it for quite a long time.  I had pretty much decided to get an old Ford 8N this spring, but now I’m having second thoughts.  I grew up with one and used to mow a lot of lawn with a Woods finish mower.  Got used to it and it was certainly faster/better than a standard riding mower.  There are a lot of other things we could use a small tractor for as well, but I’m starting to wonder if an “N” series Ford is more of a sentimental choice.  They are certainly very useful and a great value for what you pay for them.  You can get a nicely restored one for $2500-3000 around here.

However, there are lots of areas where the “N” shows it’s age.  They are known for being super easy to work on and you can readily find parts for them.  But they require constant maintenance from everything I’ve read. I would love to learn to work on them, but I also have a gazillion other things I need to spend my time doing. At this point I should probably be spending time on all the things we want to do with the property, so the equipment needs to make that easier and faster. 

Some other “N” shortcomings include the lack of active PTO, relatively poor brakes, the gear ratios limit what type of attachments you can run (such as a tiller) and it’s fairly difficult to put a loader or blade on the front of one.  People do it, but I don’t think I could figure it out myself.  I’m also starting to wonder if I will end up having to do quite a lot of manual trimming even after mowing, particularly once we start adding outbuildings and more landscaping.  Our property is also pretty wet, which could lead to issues with tire tracks and ruts in the lawn.

The main uses we have for a tractor in the short-term (1-3 years) are mowing, probably snow clearing either via blade or blower and potentially hauling stuff around.  Long-term I would love to have something I could use to run a rotary tiller, compact versions of manure spreaders (our neighbor shares horse poo with us) and 1 bottom plow and potentially other attachments such as a cultivator or wood chipper.  The “N” can do some of that fairly well, some of it okay and some not at all.

For mowing, I was originally thinking about getting a zero turn mower and they are certainly very nice.  But a one note machine.  They are just really great at mowing and not much else. And they are fairly expensive compared to other options.

A new or newer compact tractor, such as those made by Yanmar, New Holland, John Deere and Kubota is pretty much out of our price range.  If we start to make some money off our property, it may make sense then.  But it doesn’t make sense to spend $15-20K on a tractor right now and probably doesn’t even make sense to spend $10K.  Even used that is pretty much the price range for something like that. And that is the low end.  That is why the 8N is attractive, because you can do many of the same things, but the cost outlay is much less.

So now I’m wondering if a smaller garden tractor might be the way to go, particularly if I can find a decent used one.  They certainly do well at mowing and can run all of the implements/attachments I’m interested in since they have rear PTO.  Although we have 10 acres, most of that is not lawn we need to mow and some of the lawn we have is going to be torn up for gardening, chicken coop, a shed, possibly a greenhouse and so on.  So that both cuts down the amount of lawn and makes pulling a finish mower behind an 8N around all of that less attractive. Being an agriculture county we have plenty of options nearby as far as dealers and service.

So that’s the conundrum I’m in right now.  I don’t want to rush into anything and regret it later.  I can always buy an 8N down the road if we develop a use for it and I want to spend the time it requires to keep it running. What I don’t want is to buy an 8N, a finish mower and a building to store them in and find out after one season that it’s not practical for our needs right now.  Anyway this is the type of decision many homesteaders struggle with, so I thought it would be interesting to document my thought processes at the moment.